This year I’m doing a new series on my blog: Fantasy Focus. Each month, I’m focusing on a different fantasy subgenre. Fantasy is such a broad genre with so many different things to offer. So far, there have been focuses on Comedic Fantasy, Romantic Fantasy, Grimdark, and Epic/High Fantasy.
I’m excited to have the opportunity to interview Peter Hartog, author of The Guardian of Empire City, an urban fantasy series.
Hi Peter! Thank you for being willing to talk about urban fantasy with me!
First, will you introduce yourself to the readers and tell them a little about yourself?
Thank you for inviting me! My name is Peter Hartog, and I’m an over-the-hill self-published urban science fantasy author with two teenage boys, a demanding day job, and a house full of three rescue cats and an 80-pound golden retriever named Ollie. How my wife manages to keep us all straight is a testament to her incredible organizational and management skills, as well as her infinite patience. I don’t know where I’d be without her steering the ship.
I grew up in Massachusetts (go Ashland Clockers!), then moved to Georgia two years after my graduation from Brandeis University. Got married, got divorced, stumbled into a career in underwriting, got remarried and now enjoy the many misadventures of raising two crazy boys along with our fuzzy menagerie.
I’ve loved storytelling since I could walk. Growing up with my older brother in the late 70s, when we weren’t outside rolling in the dirt, playing catch, riding our bikes, or just exploring the world, we read books, assembled model warships, played with action figures, and generally built stories around what toys we had. I’d act as the narrator, and my brother would always be the hero. We had space adventures, superhero battles, even pretended we had a talking zoo.
Stories have always captured my imagination, whether I write, watch, listen or read them. I’m a proud card-carrying nerd (I keep a Harry Dresden business card in my wallet) who still sits around a table and rolls dice on Sunday nights with his gaming group of over 30 years. When I’m not working to save humanity one commercial property insurance policy at a time, I’m reading, watching shows and movies (Star Trek > Star Wars), listening to music (I’m forever stuck in the 80s), playing tennis, cooking, cheering on my New England sports teams, GMing or playing in tabletop games, and occasionally putting virtual pen to virtual paper.
Will you talk a little bit about The Guardian of Empire City series?
Both Bloodlines and Pieces of Eight follow homicide detective Tom “Doc” Holliday and his eclectic crew of investigators as they attempt to solve the strange and unusual by any means necessary. The stories take place in Empire City, one of fifty-two walled human enclaves that survived World War III and the horrors that followed. As a result of massive nuclear detonations weakening the fabric of reality, magic returned to the world as well as one-way portals that infrequently introduce new and sometimes frightening interdimensional beings. One such group, called Vellans, are intelligent, civilized humanoids who fled from their alternate Earth to find refuge on Holliday’s Earth.
After years of recovery from the war and pandemics that followed it, and through the aid of Vellan technology and knowledge that taught humanity how to harness the power of magic into usable energy, humanity endured to what it is today. The people of Empire City have jobs, there’s trade and travel with other enclaves, and life goes on.
And with all that also comes politics, greed, taxes, marriage, divorce, and murder.
The GoEC combines the genres of urban fantasy with science fiction and crime thriller to provide an exciting blend of whodunnit and magical shenanigans.
If I’m being honest, the GoEC series came out of nowhere. Prior to writing it, I was an avid fan of the classic fantasy stories by the usual suspects. I read plenty of classic literature in high school and college, but my go-to escapism was the pure fun of high fantasy. I ran dozens of D&D campaigns for my friends. I even managed to write five chapters of a fantasy novel, but it never went anywhere.
Like many urban fantasy authors, I’ve read Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden. I’d grown tired of sword-and-sorcery stories. While they weren’t necessarily cookie-cutter, my mind grew bored. Dresden was a refreshing read. It combined the mainstay elements of what I had been enjoying for decades colorfully painted upon a modern-day canvas. From the pop culture references, the humor, the larger-than-life villains, the crazy cases, the series’ appeal was immediate.
Around the same time, I’d begun watching the television shows Person of Interest and The Blacklist. From there, my mind started churning with possibilities.
I realized I wanted to create something different, a genre-mashup that combined the stories I’d grown up with coupled with the familiarity of today’s world. But it wasn’t enough. Butcher had already covered that with Dresden, so I thought further on what I could add to separate myself from the gold standard of urban fantasy. Did I succeed? You be the judge.
Around the spring of 2014, I started writing a story about a down-on-his-luck private investigator working out of Boston. It didn’t go anywhere because it felt too much like Dresden fanfiction.
But the seed that had been planted when I first read Dresden germinated further in my subconsciousness.
I began asking myself a simple question: “What if?”
What if, instead of having a modern setting, the world had evolved in some ways, remained the same in others, and history diverged?
I loved the glitzy, glittering cityscape scenes and massive scope of Ridley Scott’s futuristic and dystopian vision in Blade Runner. I’d never played Shadowrun, never read Gibson’s Neuromancer (it’s on my TBR), never read any cyberpunk. But I started seeing images of a dystopian New York called Empire City. I imagined what life would be like after a nuclear holocaust. Why humanity would want to restore civilization, how people would come together either to return to what they once knew or gather beneath the banner of some other socio-economic and/or religious focus.
And then I sprinkled magic on top of it.
I took these ideas, wrote an outline, developed side characters, and approached my gaming group with the idea of GMing it. The concept of writing a novel, let alone two, hadn’t even entered my mind. The players came up with character ideas (all of whom are represented in the novels in some form except for Doc Holliday), I built the world around them, and the Special Crimes Unit was born. The game ran about a year and was a smashing success. After the Bloodlines game, I developed two more cases: Pieces of Eight and The Devil’s Share (my current WIP).
Enamored by the games I ran and the setting I’d created, I began novelizing Bloodlines in 2016. For once, the words came easily to me. No longer stymied by writer’s block or a lack of inspiration, I made steady progress until I self-published in 2018.
As for the stories themselves, I leaned heavily into the tropes that I’ve loved since I was a kid: the down-on-his-luck hero with a heart of gold; the crusty, inveterate heavy with a dark past; the mysterious and ethereal alien; the sharp, ebullient kid with a shadowy dark-side. Villains embraced their villainy. There’s good and bad, and stuff in-between. Pulpy dialogue, cinematic scenes, flowery writing, bad jokes, pop culture and music references.
I know the GoEC series isn’t ground-breaking. It’s not unique, nor is it the greatest fiction you’ll ever read (although I do think it’s pretty good, but I’m biased that way). At the end of the day, my imagination craved a change of scenery. I’d been stuck in a rut, gotten bored with the same old-same old, and needed something new.
So, I followed some of the best writing advice I’d ever been given: write what you want to read.
Your series focuses on a detective solving mysteries of the fantastical nature. Did writing the case element present unique challenges?
I’d never written crime fiction. I don’t personally know anyone in law enforcement, either. I had no idea where to begin. But the internet can be a wonderfully helpful tool, and research is your friend. I read police procedurals, searched the NYPD website and associated websites, watched copy shows on television and on film, and tried to provide just enough realism in the stories for the average reader. Are there mistakes? Probably, but so far no one has pointed them out.
I also have the benefit of writing urban science fantasy which means I can bend or break the rules. The setting isn’t 21st century New York. The NYPD has its policies and procedures, but that doesn’t mean Empire City’s police shares the same. Sure, there are reflections, but I can diverge however I want. Funny thing is, I tried to keep that aspect of the stories grounded as best I could.
Holliday starts off thinking he’s dealing with an ordinary, yet weird, crime. And as the reader tracks his progression, they’ll see how his view shifts considerably but only after he experiences the extraordinary. Despite possessing his own magic (with its own problems), and living in a world powered by magic, I developed a skeptical, world-weary main character whose arc takes him to where the reader expects him to go.
One of the most interesting aspects of my research were autopsy reports. The gruesome, yet clinical detail involved, a fresh reminder of humanity’s awful capacity to harm one another. It wasn’t just the science and nuts-and-bolts side of things. Reading sample reports and how the medical examiner conducts their job was both enlightening and frightening.
While both stories involve magic, Empire City’s world-building uses the mystical as a pragmatic foundation for its existence. Simplistically, magic is an energy source drawn from Nexus nodes, previously invisible vessels of power brought to light because of multiple catastrophic nuclear detonations. Holliday remarks early in Bloodlines how the Vellans (interdimensional beings who found refuge on Holliday’s Earth) taught humanity to harness the Nexus nodes, saving civilization from ruin. The average citizen considers magic akin to electricity. Magic is used to heat water, power machinery, keep the lights on.
This blending of magic and technology granted me a lot of freedom. Moments such as examining the crime scene, reviewing the remains at the medical examiner’s office, sifting through digital files via holo-technology, and digging through the victim’s home and personal effects came off as both hand’s on and clinical minus the sense of the arcane despite magic being omnipresent. Yet, like himself, Holliday is aware of others who can wield magic to uncanny effect, and not just to turn the light off in the other room.
I’m hopeful this grounding of Holliday’s reality to give the reader a sense of place and time is balanced by the fantastical elements that comprise the rest of the story.
Your series is considered urban fantasy. How would you define that subgenre?
To me, urban fantasy is taking magic, magical creatures, magical places, magical items, and everything associated with those things, moving them from castles and dungeons, airships and dragons and dropping them into a 21st century (or later) modern day setting.
As you’ve read previously, I consider my books to be urban science fantasy because my timeline is set in an alternate future. When exactly, I leave vague. But it’s not too distant that the 21st century and everything that came before was forgotten.
What first drew you to writing urban fantasy, as opposed to another type of fantasy?
I never expected to write the GoEC series. I figured I’d eventually put together a classic high fantasy story because that’s my first love. But the words wouldn’t flow. The ideas never stuck. The characters all fell flat.
Then Special Crimes and Detective Tom “Doc” Holliday popped into my head. The words quickly followed.
I think the familiarity of New York and Boston helped the most. Rather than create a world from scratch, I picked on places that I’ve enjoyed visiting. By transforming them in some way, I get to play in a familiar sandbox and mold it into something else just for the fun of it.
What are some struggles with writing urban fantasy?
Authenticity. If you’re going to use New York City, then the setting needs to live up to the alternate “reality”. Sure, I’ll change specific places, but the reader needs to know they’re still in New York, regardless of the year or what’s happening in the story itself. Dialogue is another challenge. You want readers to hear the distinctive accents, to see the neighborhoods and how they reflect the character and architecture that has defined New York as the melting pot for so many beautiful cultures, past and present.
What are some strengths to this subgenre?
Urban fantasy is like tofu. Tofu by itself doesn’t have much of a flavor (at least, not to me), but when you combine it with other seasonings and sauces, tofu takes on the best (and worst) of those aspects.
The urban fantasy sandbox is deep and varied. It allows the blending of so many fun genres, and if balanced correctly, creates the potential for a deep and meaningful setting and story.
Who are your go-to authors?
In my formative years, the list icnludes JRR Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock, Barbara Hambly, and Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman.
Lately, I’ve been reading Michael Connelly, George RR Martin, Jim Butcher, Andy Weir, Fonda Lee, Patricia Jackson, and Ben Aaronovitch.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out the TREMENDOUS talent of a host of indie and self-published authors out there including Douglas Lumsden (who writes my absolute favorite urban fantasy series everyone should read), Jonathan Nevair, T.A. Bruno (a 2021 SPSFC Finalist!), Krystle Matar (an SPFBO7 Finalist!), Jeff Speight, Peter James Martin, and Leigh Grissom.
Is there anything on the horizon you’d like to talk about?
I’m slowly working my way through The Devil’s Share, the third book in The Guardian of Empire City series. It’s been slow going because my day job has been brutally busy, but I still manage to write here and there. I have a wonderful critique group who keeps me on my toes and sharp and are some of the most supportive writers I’ve ever met, thanks to Twitter.
The audiobook for Pieces of Eight will be produced at some point in 2022, as well. I’m also toying with the idea of merchandise, specifically coffee mugs. For anyone who knows Holliday, then you understand. And if you haven’t read Bloodlines and Pieces of Eight, what are you waiting for?
About Peter Hartog:
A native son of Massachusetts, Peter has been living in the Deep South for over 25 years. By day, he’s an insurance professional, saving the world one policy at a time. But at night, well, no one really wants to see him fighting crime in his Spider-Man onesie. Instead, Peter develops new worlds of adventure influenced by his love of science fiction, mysteries, music and fantasy. Whether it’s running role-playing games for his long-time friends, watching his beloved New England sporting teams vie for another championship, or just chilling with a movie, his wife, two boys, three cats and one dog, Peter’s imagination is always on the move. It’s the reason why his stories are an eclectic blend of intrigue, excitement, humor and magic, drawn from four decade’s worth of television, film, novels and comic books.
LinkedIn: Peter Hartog